Medicine from Malady: Shabbat Message by Rabbi Dan Levin

Shabbat Message by Rabbi Dan Levin graphic for Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

There is a game I love to play with couples as part of pre-marital wedding counseling.  I ask each of the partners to share five things they love the most about their partner.  It can be very emotional to hear each share what they admire and appreciate most in the other.

Then I ask them something harder: tell me the three or four things about your partner that make you want to pull your hair out, that are annoying and bothersome.  It’s difficult and painful, but important for a couple to let each other know what’s hard for them.

Inevitably, the things someone loves about someone are also the things that drive them crazy at the same time.

What do you love about him?

I love that he’s so easy going, he’s so patient, he never seems to get upset.

What bothers you?

He never makes a decision, he never goes to bat for himself, he’s so passive!

What do you love about her?

I love that she’s so driven, she’s so accomplished, she’s so structured and organized.  What bothers you?

She’s always nagging, we never can just sit and relax, she’s too controlling!

So often it seems that our virtues can easily morph into vices.  That which enriches can also be that which afflicts.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites suffer the losses of their leaders Miriam and Aaron.  Exhausted and forlorn, the people revert to their familiar complaint: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.” (Numbers 21:5)

Their ungrateful complaints drive God to send “HaNechashim HaSerafim – fiery serpents” that bite the Israelites, killing many of them.

But as the people cry out in repentance, God provides a remarkable tool for healing.  “Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover.” (Numbers 21:9)

This symbol is familiar to us as it was borrowed by the Greeks to be the “Rod of Asclepius” – the most common international symbol of medicine.

Paradoxically, God sends a serpent to be both the source of their suffering and their agent for healing. A compilation of medieval commentators – Da’at Zekenim – suggests that “the reason why God instructed Moses to construct a serpent, the symbol of everything negative since time immemorial, was to demonstrate that this very negative symbol would miraculously heal them from snake bites if used in the proper manner. It is only the Holy One who can use destructive instruments equally well for constructive purposes.”

When we look at medicine, it’s remarkable how often the remedy for an illness is found in the source of the illness itself.  We inoculate ourselves with vaccines developed from the virus we seek to thwart.  We take toxic chemicals and use them to kill cancer cells in order to save our lives.  As Nachmanides wrote: “God commanded that they should be healed by the harmful agent whose nature is to kill…”

The snakes, the commentators suggest, remind us of the first serpent – whose cunning lies led to the downfall of humanity.

Language is the most sacred and powerful gift given to humanity.  It is the tool the Holy One uses to construct the universe.  Language has the power to enlighten, to inspire, to transmit ideas, emotion, knowledge and wisdom.

At the same time, language can also be used to foment hatred and division, to delude and to obfuscate the truth.  Language can direct our gaze to the hope of a promised land, or to a cynicism that lures us back to Egypt.

Humanity is the same.  Each of us can be agents of destruction or healing.  Each of us can use our lives to contribute to a better world, or we can pursue cynical aims that enrich us temporarily at the cost of lasting hurt to our society and the world.

Gazing at the serpent form on the standard, the Israelites miraculously found relief from their infection.  Perhaps if we look carefully in the mirror, we will learn to transform our vices into virtues – and become partners with God and each other to bring healing to our broken world.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dan Levin
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”

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